‘On the day you were born the round planet Earth turned toward your morning sky, whirling past darkness, spinning the night into light’
Debra Frasier’s On the Day You Were Born is experiencing almost as many lives as it celebrates between its 32 matte pages. What began as an award-winning picture book has grown into a 30-minute symphonic work composed by Steve Heitzeg, which will now have its first international performance in Florence at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.
‘When the book was finished I never would have imagined it would come to this’, says Frasier, who lives in the Twin Cities, and is author/illustrator of numerous award-winning children’s books. ‘But this is a perfect example of how a collaborative project grows far beyond an individual’s imagination’.
The NotesAlive! StoryConcert format originated with the Minnesota Orchestra, which commissioned Steve Heitzeg to create a work that weaves together story and symphony, integrating animated characters from a humpback whale, to a reindeer, to a tiny child. Giorgio Mancini, director and choreographer of MaggioDanza, will weave the tale into a ballet for the Florentine performances. The goal, described by the theatre’s project designer/coordinator Lisa Friend, is ‘to promote awareness and understanding between diverse cultures, religions, sonorities and scientific knowledge. It creates an environment where artists and their works enter into contact with students and families, avoiding cultural standardization’.
On the Day You Were Born—all about the earth welcoming a new baby safely into the spinning world—came into being almost20 years ago, when Frasier was hospitalized with a difficult pregnancy. She asked for paper to write down the elements which would welcome her child into the world. For those familiar with her book, that list has a familiar ring: gravity’s strong pull, the quiet moon, a burning sun. Two years later she had distilled the images into a Harcourt Brace Children’s book with poetic language and colourful cut-out paper illustrations that has caught the imagination of the public, selling over one million copies to date.
Then Steve Heitzeg began to set text to music, agreeing that his belief in a peaceful coexistence of all species through music made him well suited to capture the spirit of the book in music. A composer of over 60 works, some known as ‘ecoscores’ (intimate works with inventive syntax and design), Heitzeg says his first task was to determine how he heard the book: Was it for soprano? Chamber ensemble?
He settled on narrator and orchestra. He states, ‘Sonically it had to use a full orchestra to represent the multifarious voices of all species across the planet’. He used quick meter changes during the animal migration, brassy flutter-tongued pitches as the sun burns and huge orchestrations while the tide pulls. Trying to evoke the natural elements and a certain wild freedom, Heitzeg’s score calls for musicians to play non-standard instruments like stones, llama hooves and shell wind chimes.
‘What I didn’t want to do was write down to kids’, he says. ‘They’ve got great ears and are excited about new sounds and ideas, so I wanted to write a piece that would work on both evening and family/school concerts. Debra’s book carries a meaning that speaks to every person regardless of age, and I wanted the music to do the same’.
The performances are part of OperAzione: Do You Speak English project, currently in its third consecutive year, designed and coordinated in 2003 by music professor and opera education consultant, Lisa Friend, and under the artistic direction of the Teatro del Maggio. The theatre this year will benefit from the collaboration of American education abroad programs including Fairfield University as co producer, Georgetown University (sponsor of conductor Rufus Jones), Florence University of the Arts and Florence Academy of Art, as well as the American Consulate and Tuscan-American Association as patron and sponsor.
The initiative has found crucial support in the new artistic director Paolo Arcà and superintendent Francesco Giambrone of the Teatro del Maggio. Their new ‘Progetto Giovani’ has a galvanizing vision, and On the Day You Were Born will be one of the initial forces in starting this new pathway. In fact, university student volunteers will visit over 20 elementary schools in the Florence area to prepare the children prior to their attending the performances, assisted by a 90-page educational curriculum guide prepared by Debra Frasier and Steve Heitzeg to aid in learning about the music, the narrative, the scientific terminology used in the book and score. In addition, they will have ‘big books’ and props to help students understand and appreciate the story-concert, to be performed in English with Italian supertitles.
All morning school performances are already sold out at the Teatro del Maggio. The evening performance to benefit the Meyer Children’s Hospital is the most exciting bridge to be built. ‘Past benefit performances for OperAzione: DoYou Speak English at the Teatro del Maggio brought in many much-needed donations’, states Fondazione Meyer manager, Alessandro Benedetti.
(Portions of this article appeared in Minnesota Orchestra Showcase Magazine, Sept. ‘96, G. Pappas. Illustrations: D. Frasier, Photo at Teatro del Maggio, A. Picchi. Printed w/permission.)
3-D animations; orchestra with narrator Debra Frasie; music by Steve Heitzeg; conductor Rufus Jone;, dancers MaggioDanza; director/choreographer Giorgio Mancini; project designer/coordinator Lisa Friend
Evening benefit performance for Meyer Children’s Hospital: March 11, 8:30pm
Piccolo Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, Corso Italia 16
Morning performances: March 7, 8, 20, 21, 22, at 10:30am
General information: Fairfield University Florence program: 055/2344034
Tickets on sale at Paperback Exchange, via delle Oche 4r, 10am to 6:30pm
For ticket reservations and information: call 055/293460; email: firstname.lastname@example.org